This week, we've decided to give Media Reviews for Media People columnist Larry Dobrow a chance to find his most compatible fellow reviewer. Inspired by ABC's "Dating in the Dark," we set Larry and Ad Age Managing Editor Judann Pollack against each other to see if their opinions of summer dating shows would match up. Is it a reviewing love match? Or will Larry be left on the balcony?
Media Reviews for Media People's Larry Dobrow
Still, after we clashed over "The Real Housewives of New Jer-Z" (she called them "classless consumerists," I called them "former neighbors"), I began to wonder if we were truly as pop-culturally simpatico as previously suspected. Hence she suggested -- nay, double-dog-dared me into -- a dance-off over one of the summer's gauzy reality offerings. "My brow is lower than yours," she seemed to boast, a statement those who know me realize is six levels beyond impossible.
For this joint exercise, we chose ABC's "Dating in the Dark." Big mistake. One of the most recent entries to the emotionally-retarded-telewhoring genre, the show is no more likely to stimulate lively discourse at our virtual water cooler (that'd be e-mail) than an episode of "Rock of Love" in which Bret Michaels escorts a mannered, conservative young doe to "Mostly Mozart."
The concept itself totally rules: Equip a pitch-black room with infrared cameras, stick a bunch of comely dolts in there, and monitor their kissy/feely interactions, all the while hoping for a forehead-meets-jaw collision of such impact that it makes the next morning's "SportsCenter."
The network, in fact, is billing the show as a "dating experiment," as if the participants are the lab rats and viewers are the white-coated observers with clipboards and useless sociology degrees. We can learn an awful lot about ego and attraction and societal notions of interpersonal something-or-other, the show suggests, if we remove physical appearance from the equation.
The fun ends fast. For an entity like "Dating" to qualify as anything other than flip-by piffle, it would have to be, like, all science-y and stuff. It would have to take place under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, rather than poolside. It would have to include input and insight from the type of bright, articulate researchers who have faces made for radio and voices made for telegraph. Instead, "Dating" lazily falls back on every reality-show convention: the straight-faced confessionals, the scripted repartee, the "I'll-get-my-own-show-even-if-I-have-to-slander-grandma-to-do-it" hamming for the cameras. Billing this as something we've never seen before is incredibly dishonest.
Also, the contestants play the proceedings straight, as if they're about to learn profound truths about themselves.
Take the pilot episode's gimmick of having them work with sketch artists to create a composite of the guy/gal with whom they've been interacting sight unseen. The blind daters take the task as seriously as the rest of us might take doing our tax returns, offering nuanced descriptions about overbites, hip contours and superfluous third nipples. They'd have hooked me for the season and beyond if they'd cast some wiseass willing to describe his shrouded paramour as "nine feet tall, with a ribbed lower exosketelon, feathery body hair and a big honker."
Like that wouldn't have been one of the few reality-show moments that actually lives up to the Most! Dramatic! Reveal! Yet! billing.
Too, it's tough to engage emotionally with any of these dim chatterheads, who are exactly what you'd expect: thin, nice-looking, glib and white. The execution would've been much more interesting if "Dating" had included some plus-size candidates, or perhaps one in a wheelchair. That'd have forced the square-chinned fellas and giggle-puss girlies to seriously confront the issue that the show pretends to care deeply about: namely, that for a certain shallow subset of humanity, looks trump all else.
(An aside: This makes for an interesting contrast with Fox's just-debuted "More to Love," in which we learn that overweight singles are just as vapid and emotionally unhinged as skinny ones. It's too much to hope for a "More to Love"/"Dating in the Dark" crossover, isn't it?)
I don't know what's happening to televised dating shows nowadays. It used to be that a guy could buy an Ed Hardy T-shirt, utter a few earnest words about soulmates and sunsets, then effortlessly forge a magical if fleeting connection with a fellow relationship nomad. Now those same aspiring actors and actresses have been reduced to fumbling around sexlessly in dark rooms and hoping that sparks and/or germs fly. Helpless teleromantics like me, Judy and the entire Ad Age staff are poorer for the genre's sad decline.
Is love blind? No, it's just deaf and dumb, and wearing too-tight trousers. "Dating in the Dark" proves all that, and then some.
Ad Age Managing Editor Judann Pollack Responds
So I'm going to go out on a balcony here and say Larry might agree that the show, well, doesn't suck. And that's a surprise, considering my first thought when I saw the ABC promo: Boy, is this going to suck. After all, the idea itself seemed stupid even by reality TV standards. The concept is that three couples live in a house, segregated from one another unless they are in the "dark room," which through the miracle of TV allows us to see the contestants though they cannot see one another.
Through a series of "dates" (which amount, in many cases, to a lot of purposeful groping) in that room, they pair off based on who they believe they are most compatible with. More groping ensues. The big denouement comes when the lights go up -- for 15 seconds they see one other -- and then each half of the pair must decide whether to continue groping. Naturally, to add drama, one party waits on a balcony to see whether his or her potential life mate appears triumphantly or hightails it away from the house via the front door (visible from the balcony) with a suitcase.
There are a couple of decent twists. In the first episode, the contestants got a sketch artist to draw what they thought their dates looked like. In one case, the man's rendition of what his female companion looked like was uncannily accurate, while the same woman obviously mistook her date for Brad Pitt, while he looked a whole lot more like Al Pacino. In the second episode, the couples got to rifle through each other's luggage, inspecting bra sizes and personal items, posing problems for one contestant, as her male date was dismayed that she wasn't as petite as he, er, felt she was.
Producer Endemol, which gave us such sociological gems as "Big Brother," would like us to believe that "Dark" is an experiment in learning something about ourselves -- whether we are shallow enough to ditch someone we might otherwise like based upon their looks. And, of course, we are that shallow, as demonstrated by what happened to a man on the first show. But in the second show, an astoundingly lovely woman was left at the balcony by a not-so-hot-looking potential mate not because of her appearance but because of a Bible in her baggage.
So while "Dark" tries to convey one of those silly reality TV "life lessons" that you can take about as seriously as a proposal between a bachelor and the Bachelorette, at least it's not trying to wave a chiding finger at the viewer like "More to Love" (you know, the excruciating and ultimately unwatchable program that purports to raise esteem for plus-size women by showing them crying pitifully over romantic rejections in their past because of their size before they are shown the door by a supposedly desirable and definitely sizeable bachelor).
On second thought, maybe Larry won't agree with me on "Dark," but I guarantee you he'll have a similar assessment of "More to Love." And I'm not groping here.
Oh, my. Well, it looks as if our two like-minded pop-culture devotees are diverging a bit here, with Judy giving ABC's "Dating in the Dark" a thumbs up and Larry giving it a thumbs down. However, it does seem as if they are on the same page with Fox's "More to Love," so maybe there is still hope of salvaging this relationship. Dr. Phil, are you available?